The evergreens that frame architect Mark Ritchie and finance professional Lisa Mingo’s Vancouver home look as if they cozy right up to the back of the house. The effect is a tromp l’oeil, because in reality, an expansive deck, lush landscaping, and a stair-step backyard sit snugly in the crook of an L-shaped structure that ladders up to the pine trees.
Ritchie, a Kiwi, and Mingo, a Canadian, moved to Vancouver from New Zealand with their two boys, Connor and Dylan, in 2008, the same year Ritchie co-founded Architecture Building Culture with Portland, Oregon-based Brian Cavanaugh. The couple also bought the property on which their house now stands, in the Eagle Harbour area of West Vancouver, that August. But the lot wasn’t a clean slate: a circa-1950 ranch already stood there.
The family lived in the house for five years, from 2008 to 2013. Ritchie initially debated whether to renovate the existing structure or tear it down and begin again, but over time, the home’s structural problems became apparent. The property sits right at the edge of a forested cliff, which encourages a high level of water runoff, particularly in the spring.
“We had one year where the water came down the mountain and almost flooded us because the house was right at grade,” Ritchie explains. “So one real problem was how low it was to the ground.” The other problem, he says, was that the house was just worn out; no owner had ever renovated or updated it. “The walls were pretty wet and there wasn’t much value in the end. We decided that the best thing would be to start again.”
Ritchie zeroed in on three questions to narrow the design process: What are the best parts of the property to live on? Which parts did they want to preserve? And how much money did they have?
Since the family had lived in the original house for five years, they knew quite a bit about how they interacted with the lot.
“We had a good feel for how the the seasons behaved in relation to the property, how we reacted to the seasons, and what parts of the property we liked to live on,” he says.
The landscape was the driving force for the new home’s design. Ritchie decided to site the structure on the eastern portion of the land to get the western sun, but the first iteration of the design was more modern treehouse than West Coast modernism. Ritchie initially dreamt of a two-story house that would bridge over the slightly sloping backyard to a separate wing on a flatter portion of the lot. But an ancient cedar tree stood in the way. About four or five design iterations later, Ritchie finally hit on a design that worked.
“[The plans] are literally what I sketched when I first thought of this approach, and it’s basically what we built,” he says. The result was a one-story, open-layout house on the lowest point of the site with a wing of bedrooms along the northern edge of the property, ensconcing the hillside as a courtyard. The four bedrooms are tiered and open up directly onto the garden, as does the living room, and each has southern exposure to maximize sunlight. The master bedroom, the last in the chain, sits a full story above the main house, and the sleek roofline keeps the focus on the landscape and cliff.
“New Zealand’s a pretty young country and there’s a lot of experimentation in housing,” he says. “Young architects and practices are designing new and different treatments of living on properties. Often, the property is the driving force in a design, so I think that kind of cultural experimentation is there.”
The building process was a family affair: Ritchie’s nephew, Cameron, had just gotten his building license in New Zealand and the architect invited him to oversee the project for a year and a half, from April 2013 to June 2014. Ritchie acted as general contractor and Cameron was the carpenter and dealt with tradespeople on site.
Ritchie imagined the home’s exterior as a shell hiding another material: black Hardieshingle siding gives way to white Hardie panel siding. The materials were also chosen with sustainability in mind.
“I was interested at the time in being as energy efficient as we could without doing any laborious calculations,” says Ritchie. “I knew if we had exterior insulated sheathing, that would help. We overdid the roof insulation and have hot water radiant heating.”
There was no need for air conditioning since the house was well-insulated and therefore passively cooled. Stormwater collects in one downpipe location for later use in the gardens. The floor-to-ceiling sliding doors in the living room, as well as the rest of the windows in the home, allow for ample daylight, even when it’s gray for long stretches of time.
“There’s no sense of cabin fever in the main living room,” says Ritchie. ‘You can actually spend all weekend in there and feel pretty comfortable.”
The doors were chosen to create a pass-through from the front porch to the backyard. Ritchie says that the style is typical in New Zealand, because “in the summer you’re in and out of the house, and the house has a very close relationship with the landscape.” The sliding doors are a lens on the landscape, which is lit up each evening by the setting sun. They are also a point of connection to the street. Ritchie says he wanted the front deck to be something of a modern interpretation of a Victorian porch. “The idea of the front porch came from that traditional use [as] a social space, a buffer between your private spaces and the street,” he says. “Life on the front porch is just as important as life in the backyard. We really wanted to try to encourage that, whether it’s our children hanging out on the front lawn, or people wandering past.”
The interiors of the home are defined by neutral materials, like white walls, concrete flooring, and stainless steel and quartz countertops, that are punctuated by primary colors and warm white oak. Ritchie designed the kitchen, as he does for many of his clients, so that the fridge, pantry, and several other components disappear into a utility space concealed by white oak. The trick does away with the need for upper cabinets.
The living and dining area are connected by a long desk that lines the southern wall, originally built with his children in mind.
“I had these romantic visions of my children doing their homework here, but of course it doesn’t work like that,” Ritchie says, laughing. “In fact, Lisa and I find it very useful because we operate there during the day with our laptops.”
While the main level’s concrete was left exposed as flooring, the bedroom wing was clad in white oak—partly to warm things up and partly to cut the costs of finishing concrete—and the material is used throughout the home for cabinetry, doors, and more.
The repeated design of three matching bedrooms—two for their sons and one for guests—is rooted in Ritchie’s past work in hospitality, and each room has its own terrace looking out on the garden. The guest bathroom is situated next to the guest bedroom, so there’s no fumbling around an unfamiliar house at night. The master bathroom has an inventive in-the-round design, and connects without doors to the master bedroom, which looks out onto cedars and the cliffside.
While the house is 2,700 square feet, Ritchie compares the feel of it to a smaller, uniquely New Zealand style of housing. “Other Kiwis have said it’s a bit like a bach,” Ritchie says, explaining the home’s cottage feel. What’s a bach, an American might ask? “It’s short for bachelor. Everyone in New Zealand has a bach by a lake.” Other portions of the structure are specifically North American, he says, like the heating system—something most homes in New Zealand don’t have.
Ritchie says that going through the process of building his own home was incredibly valuable from a professional point of view, and that he’s still referring to the experience when he approaches new projects. “I really understand the constraints of building and coordinating trades, and the complexity of it,” he adds. It was also personally fulfilling to be able to work with his nephew. “It was quite a big challenge for us,” he says. “We’re very proud of ourselves being able to achieve it.”